Old South Meets the New South in Mary Ward Brown's Long-Awaited Collection

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"'I'm Rose Pardue, of Rosemont,' Rose had introduced herself as a girl. It had been her open sesame all over the Black Belt of Alabama. She fixed her once-famous eyes on the girl by her bed." So begins the first story of Mary Ward Brown's new collection, It Wasn't All Dancing and Other Stories, published by the University of Alabama Press (UAP) as part of its Deep South Book series. In this story, Brown, who won a PEN/Hemingway award in 1987, explores what Rose Pardue discovers when, as an elderly, genteel Southern Belle, she develops an uncommon friendship with a young, black working woman. The theme of the living past negotiating contemporary currents appears throughout the collection.

"I wrote this story because of my fascination with the mystique of the Southern Belle and the lives they led, which are now extinct. It has died out in the last 10 years," Brown told BTW in a recent interview. "Those women traditionally had credentials, money, and looks. They had fabulous lives. They went to cotillions, had a number of proposals, and were virgins. They still had trials and tribulations, even though they were always dancing. I wanted to see how the Southern Belle would relate to today's black woman."

Brown was raised in Marion Junction, Alabama, on a 1,500-acre farm, owned by her farmer father and her career woman mother. She said that she writes about race because it's a dominant issue in her area. "This is the Black Belt of Alabama. The old plantation of the South," said Brown. "The soil is black and very fertile. This is where the cotton plantations once had slaves. Today, blacks have returned home and now make up the majority."

It Wasn't All Dancing reveals the lives of ordinary people at critical turning points, as Old South traditions are juxtaposed with New South revelations. Most of the 11 stories were previously published in such national magazines and literary journals as The Atlantic Monthly, Grand Street Magazine, and The Threepenny Review. In Brown's fictional world, a bedridden Southern Belle is dependent upon her black nurse; a new widow is uncomforted by well-meaning Christians; and a middle-aged waitress falls in love with the town catch but gives him up for her daughter's happiness.

Daniel Waterman, acquisitions editor for UAP's A Deep South Book imprint, told BTW that what makes Brown's collection so engaging is her richness of detail and her strong sense of time and place. "But above all, she has an acute sense of the fragility of every relationship, and a knack for showing how the most ordinary lives are filled with high stakes."

"I will always strive to make a human connection in my storytelling," said Brown. "I would like people to say that I'm telling the truth about the human condition as I know it."

Brown began writing in the 1950s and quickly found an agent. But when her father died and left her the family farm, her husband, a director of student affairs at Auburn University, quit his job so they could move to the farm. Feeling guilty that her husband, who had no farming experience, left a good job -- she turned her back on writing for 25 years. After her husband's death, she located her agent again and published her story, "Amaryllis," in McCall's magazine. Her first short story collection, Tongues of Flame, was published in 1986.

"I love the short story form, it seems to fit the way I think and work," said Brown. "I'm proud to be a Southern writer, but I didn't want to be a regional writer."

Waterman doesn't see Brown as a regional writer. "Readers, both regionally and nationally, have been waiting for another collection by Ms. Brown for years," said Waterman. "We understood and suspected the book would be received enthusiastically, but demand for the book, and for Ms. Brown as a speaker, and the critical reception of the book have been tremendous."

Deep South Books began as an imprint of UAP in 1999, when the press saw an opportunity to publish contemporary novels, short stories, nonfiction, and memoir of literary merit by contemporary Southern writers.

"We started by acquiring the paperback reprint rights to the works of contemporary Southern writers we admired and whose stories we believed would be of interest to both regional and national audiences," explained Waterman. "Some of our authors had published exceptional books that we have been able to return to print, and other authors in the series simply wanted the attention to detail we are able to offer as a small publisher. As the series has grown, we've published more and more original works of fiction and memoir, which have been very successful, and we hope to publish more original works down the road."

The press has built the imprint by keeping an eye out for writers whose work they admire. They also use a network of colleagues who follow contemporary Southern writing and who direct their attention to particular works or authors. Some of the authors on their list include Vicki Covington, author of The Last Hotel for Women and Gathering Home; Roy Hoffman, author of Almost Family; and Howell Raines, executive editor of the New York Times and author of the novel Whiskey Man.

"We hope that the long-term commitment we make to them will lead them to bring their future work to us," said Waterman. "Mary Ward Brown's coming to us with her long-awaited second collection is a perfect case in point. We reprinted her first collection, Tongues of Flame, in 1993. It received the 1987 Alabama Library Association Award and the 1991 Lillian Smith Book Award."

For Brown, writing fiction is like being in a room with all kinds of toys. "You get inspired from whatever's around you and make it your own." -- Gayle Herbert Robinson